Thursday September 29, 2022

Sony’s Xperia 1 IV offers real zoom at a steep price

The Xperia 1 IV is the first smartphone to feature an optical zoom lens. Although smartphones have point-and-shoot cameras (remember those?) traditional cameras still outperform phones in zoom. With a continuous optical zoom lens, the new Sony Xperia 1 IV aims at changing that. Although technically it is a great achievement, at this stage it is more proof of concept than a game-changer.
It’s also a very expensive concept at $1599. The device comes with many premium specs, including a 6.5-inch OLED (4K) with a 120Hz refresh rate. The Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 processor is also available, along with IP68 waterproofing, 512GB storage, 12GB RAM, a 5000mAh battery, as well as a headphone socket. $1600 is the price of the iPhone 13 Pro Max or Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra with the least storage.

The Xperia 1 IV offers something neither Samsung nor Google offer: a continuous optical zoom lens. While many smartphone cameras can pinch and zoom, it’s not optical zoom. Currently, optical zoom produces better results than digital because it uses moving lenses to magnify your subject. Digital zoom is a cropping of an image that’s larger than digital and relying on AI for details it was unable to capture. It’s more like an educated guess rather than the ground truth.
You may also have a telephoto camera on your smartphone. This could be the 3x lens (or equivalent 77mm film-era terminology) on the iPhone 13 Pro, or the 10x (230mm equivalent on the Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra). They don’t have “zoom” lenses, which means they are fixed and don’t allow for you to change focal lengths. The telephoto lens on the Xperia 1 IV is different in that it allows you to adjust the focal length to 85mm, 125mm or anywhere in between.
Fixed lenses are preferred by smartphone makers because they are smaller and more affordable. It is difficult to reduce the size of moving parts in a zoom lens to a smartphone size. This is something that few OEMs are willing to do. Oppo presented a continuous optical zoom concept last spring, but it has not yet been released to the market. Although the Xperia 1 IV is currently in prototype form and won’t ship until September, it’s possible that Oppo could beat Sony. The Xperia 1 IV is our only tangible proof of a smartphone-sized zoom.
It’s a great achievement, but it’s also kind of disappointing.

It has a narrow zoom range, ranging from 3.5 to 5.2x to the standard 24mm angle. Sony claims that it selected these focal lengths for portraits and that they are useful individually. I don’t know how valuable the space between them are.
Before we get into the zoom lens, let’s take a quick look at the three rear cameras of the Sony Xperia 1IV:
16mm F2.2 ultrawide: 12-megapixel 1/2.5-inch sensor
Standard 24mm F1.7 wide: 12-megapixel 1/1.7 inch sensor with OIS
85-125mm F2.3-22.8 Telephoto Zoom: 12-megapixel 1/3.5 inch sensor with OIS
All three rear camera sensors can read out at 120fps, so Sony’s eye and face detection runs seamlessly on all three. It’s almost unbelievable how accurate it is in finding the subject’s eyes and sticking with them. This works almost flawlessly on all three rear cameras. A 12-megapixel front-facing sensor is also available that supports 4K HDR video.

Sometimes the Xperia 1 IV can produce amazing images — photos that I am amazed I was able take with a smartphone. The unit I was able demo was inconsistent and made poor judgments about white balance and scenes with difficult lighting. Although the prototype phone I am testing is still in development, Sony’s senior product information manager El-Deane Naude said that he doesn’t expect much to change between now and then.
First, let’s start with the good. This phone has a real zoom lens, and it works quite well. It’s not as sharp as you might expect, but it is good enough to handle the small images on social media. It doesn’t make a big difference for distant subjects but it gives you some flexibility up close for portrait subjects.

The Xperia 1 IV can produce excellent image quality when it does the right thing.
This 85mm image has some unattractive highlights and seems to have lost focus.

The Xperia 1 IV can be used indoors or under good lighting. It is smart about choosing a balanced exposure and vibrant colors that don’t appear too saturated.
It can sometimes get into trouble with dim indoor lighting, which is not surprising considering its smaller sensor and dimmer aperture. There are some white balance issues or an HDR effect, which turns the fresh fish display’s white ice gray. Some of the photos I took with the zoom lens look a bit too soft and overexposed. Sony’s Naude acknowledges that there is a problem with the prototype unit’s autofocus at 5.1x zoom. I can see the issue clearly in my device. However, these exposure and quality issues can also be seen at other focal lengths.
It is also obvious that the Xperia 1 IV has smaller sensors and optics than a traditional camera. Sharp photos of moving subjects in dim lighting are a challenge. Don’t expect to get much subject separation even with the long end.
The Xperia 1 IV has a lot of manual control for video recording. This is way more than a hobby still photographer like myself can understand and use. All of this can be accessed via Sony’s Cinema Pro app, just like previous models. This year, Videography Pro offers a simplified version of the video recording app. It can also be used as a livestreaming application. Although I haven’t used it extensively yet, I find it to be much more familiar and comfortable than Cinema Pro.
The price is the main reason I have concerns about the Xperia 1 IV. The Galaxy S22 Ultra has excellent portrait modes, including a standard wide, ultrawide and a 10x Telephoto. It also comes with the same MSRP. I would rather have the 10x lens’ long reach and the portrait-friendly 3x zoom with digital zoom between than two lenses connected by optical zoom.
The Xperia 1 IV has an IP68 rating, which means it is robustly protected against dust and water. However, it is not clear how tolerant the zoom lenses of the Xperia will be to everyday bumps, wear and tear, and everyday bumps. Sony has not responded to my question regarding this at this time. I’ll update the article if they do. It seems that moving optics can be misaligned more easily than fixed lenses. I would be concerned if I spent $1,600 on this phone.
Bottom line, Sony put a good point-and-shoot zoom in a smartphone. This is a remarkable feat. It’s not as impressive in practice. It’s basically two lenses that serve the same purpose: portrait photography. They aren’t more versatile because they have optical zoom. The next iteration may have a wider zoom range. This concept feels like it’s still in development.
Allison Johnson Photography / The Verge

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